Green Women and Green Beasts - Chimney Sweep

By the beginning of the 19th century, May Day was associated increasingly with Chimney Sweeps. Robert Southey (1836). commented that “The first days of May are the Saturnalia of these people, a wretched class of men, who exist in no other country than England” [1]. In his 'Sports and pastimes of the people of England' published in 1801, Joseph Strutt, describes the chimney sweeps' May Day:


“The chimney-sweepers of London have also singled out the first of May for their festival; at which time they parade the streets in companies, disguised in various manners. Their dresses are usually decorated with gilt paper and other mock fineries; they have their shovels and brushes in their hands which they rattle one upon the other; and to this rough music they jump about in imitation of dancing. Some of the larger companies have a fiddler with them, and a Jack-in-the-Green, as well as a Lord and Lady of the May, who follow the minstrel with great stateliness, and dance as occasion requires.” [2].


The chimney sweeps' May Day seems to have been in steady decline from the middle of the 19th century and had more or less disappeared by the end of the century. Acts of Parliament in 1842 and 1875 had prohibited the use of the child labour of 'climbing boys' whose attendance elicited sympathy and also charity on May Day.


Neil Transpontine believes it's important not to romanticise the Chimney Sweeps' May Day, for behind the Jack in the Green and the dancing there was real poverty. May marked the end of the busy season for sweeps, meaning extra income through ritualised begging became essential. As William Blake wrote in his poem The Chimney Sweeper: “And because I am happy, & dance & sing/They think they have done me no injury/And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King/Who make up a heaven of our misery” [3].





[1] Southey (1836) quoted in Transpontine (2013 ) 'May Day in South London: A History'

[2] Joseph Strutt (1801) 'Sports and pastimes of the people of England'

[3] Quoted in Neil Transpontine (2013 ) 'May Day in South London: A History'